“If you knew the difference between managers and leaders what would you do with the information?”

July 12, 2010

“Leaders and managers. What’s the difference?” The question is posed in management textbooks, and answered in some of them. But a more interesting question is “If you knew the difference between managers and leaders, what would you do with the information?”

Tudor Rickards

The following is written for students of leadership although professional managers and others with leadership responsibilities may also find it useful. Before addressing the more interesting question, let’s look at the apparently simpler one. “What’s the difference between leaders and managers?” It turns out that the question has been answered in different ways.

Yukl’s view

Gary Yukl, who has written a best-selling multi-edition textbook on leadership, provides one of the crisper of analyses of the issue. He notes that in writings about leadership, there is general agreement that the concepts of management and leadership are not identical. There is also considerable controversy over the degree of overlap of the two concepts. Yukl is among several leadership scholars who quotes Bennis and Nanus to the effect that “managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing” (p 21 in Yukl’s 1985 edition).

Yukl then identifies a modified view. He lists a range of scholars including Henry Minzberg, Bernard Bass and John Kotter, all of whom conside that “leading and managing are distinct processes but they do not assume that leaders and managers are different sorts of people”. Yukl expresses his own conclusion that “defining managing and leadership as distinct roles, processes, or relationships may obscure more than it reveals if it encourages simplistic theories about effective leadership” (p6).

Northouse’s view

Peter Northouse, another author of an influential leadership text, follows Yukl, but gives more emphasis to the differentiation perspective, citing Zaleznik as an important example. Northouse identifies John Kotter as holding the milder view of differentiation between processes not persons. He notes that in his textbook “we will treat the roles of managers and leaders similarly, and not emphasize the difference between them.” (p10 in Northouse’s 2004 edition).


Confused? There are differences in the perspectives of what might be called the extreme differentationists such as Bennis and Nanus, (and Zaleznik before them) who consider leaders and managers to be distinctly different types of people; the milder form of differentiation (of processes but not necessarily people) supported by Kotter; and the view that there is a considerable degree of overlap in both the processes and the people (Yukl).

In the text-book Dilemmas of Leadership, http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/0415355850/ these perspectives would be characterized as different maps. Note that they are not completely different, but retain shared features derived from earlier and well-respected maps of the terrain of management and leadership.

So does it matter?

The difference between leaders and managers seems to have been of importance to the distinguished authors mentioned above. They offer their particular perspective on the subject early in their text books, as if to get an important issue clarified or at least addressed (or in some cases as the theme of the article) they were writing. We can learn something from the writings of the authorities on leadership, but the issue remains unresolved, as we are offered differing answers. Some are clear-cut, distinguishing different kinds of people as managers and leaders (Bennis & Nanus; Zalenik). Others, such as Yukl, warn against the presumption of any clear-cut answer which risks over-simplification of underpinning theories of leadership and management.

Students of leadership will have to get by without a definitive answer to the question “what’s the difference between a leader and a manager?” And that brings me to my proposed different question. “If you knew the difference between managers and leaders what would you do with the information?”

This suggests that each leader, and each student of leadership, has to work out the answer based on personal circumstances. Earlier maps will need to be tested for relevance. Maybe it matters if you have to sit an examination on leadership. Or perhaps it matters if you believe you have a professional need to identify cohorts of people for two types of job, the one labelled jobs for leaders and the other jobs for managers. I have come across organizations whose recruitment process operates in such a way. It comes with a belief that people’s traits are more important than people’s capabilities to develop into roles they find themselves in.

To go more deeply

The various references and leadership authorities cited in this post can be found by reference to any of the three key texts mentioned: Yukl; Northouse; and Rickards and Clark (Dilemmas of Leadership).